Some leagues call the playoffs "the second season." In MLS, it's more a case of "Brave New World." Out go six months of fluctuating fortunes, ebbs and flows, barren spells and hot streaks. In comes knockout play, excruciating pressure and the magnified impact of luck, good and bad.
There does seem to be some correlation between how a team finishes the regular season and how it performs in the playoffs, though there are exceptions, as befits a game as maddeningly obverse as soccer. Several champions won at least five of their last seven games; unfortunately no 2007 team meets that criteria. So keep digging.
As you handicap the eight playoff qualifiers and look for clues in their recent performances, here's a rundown as how the 11 previous champions fared at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs. (Where the team finished in the regular season is in parentheses.)
1996: D.C. UNITED (2nd Eastern Conference). Only by winning six of its last eight games (all in regulation, none by shootout) did D.C. finish at .500 with a 16-16 record, which was good for second place in the Eastern Conference behind Tampa Bay.
The playoffs in those early years were best-of-three. United lost the playoff opener to the MetroStars in a memorable shootout after a 2-2 tie, then won at home, 1-0 and 2-1. It ousted Tampa Bay in two straight, and in MLS Cup rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Galaxy, 3-2, on Eddie Pope's overtime header.
1997: D.C. UNITED (1st Eastern Conference). The defending champion blasted through the regular season with a 21-11 record and went into the playoffs with a 5-2 mark in its final seven games. It swept New England and Columbus in four straight games total, though the second game against the Revs required a shootout. In the final, D.C. beat the Rapids, 2-1, after they won four straight playoff games following a 14-18 regular season. So much for consistency.
1998: CHICAGO (2nd, Western Conference). The Galaxy's tremendous 24-8 season overshadowed the expansion team that went 20-12, but soon enough the Fire stamped itself as championship material.
A three-game winning streak (all at home) near the end of the season propelled Chicago into the playoffs, where it beat Colorado and Los Angeles in straight games, aided by shootout wins in the opener and finale. Chicago completed a storybook season by beating a fatigued D.C. United in MLS Cup.
1999: D.C. UNITED (1st Eastern Conference). United nearly matched its remarkable '98 campaign, finishing 23-9, and near the end of the season won five straight. In the playoffs, D.C. eliminated Miami in two straight games (one by shootout), and again went the full three games to down Columbus, which it thrashed, 4-0, in the rubber match. It knocked off Los Angeles in the final.
2000: KANSAS CITY (1st Western Conference). With Tony "Stonewall" Meola in the nets, the Wizards may have been underdogs in the final against Chicago but would be certainly be tough to score against. They posted a record 16 shutouts in the regular season, including four in the last seven games, and gave up only three goals while eliminating Colorado and Kansas City in the playoffs. KC whitewashed the Fire, 1-0, to win the title.
2001: SAN JOSE(2nd Western Conference). The Quakes were 13-7-6 when the jarring events of Sept. 11 forced the cancellation of their last two games of the regular season. They were 3-3-1 in the last seven games played, and in the playoffs thrashed Columbus, 3-1 and 3-0, before eliminating Miami in three games while conceding just one goal.
The games canceled were back-to-back matches against Los Angeles and by some quirk of fate the Galaxy reached MLS Cup, where it lost, 2-1, in overtime to a Dwayne DeRosario winner.
2002: LOS ANGELES (1st Western Conference). The Galaxy never lost more than two consecutive games during the season, and finished strongly by winning six of the last seven games, including a home-and-away sweep of San Jose (both games ended 1-0) on the last two weekends of the season.
It needed three playoff games to dispatch Kansas City (the teams combined for an all-time playoff series high of 17 goals), then knocked out Colorado in two straight, 4-0 and 1-0. It won its first league crown by beating New England, 1-0, in the brand-new Gillette Stadium, when Carlos Ruiz scored in sudden-death overtime.
2003: SAN JOSE (1st Western Conference). The Quakes staggered in the final month, failing to win any of its last four games while scoring only one goal. Perhaps it had won the conference too easily at 14-7-9.
Their malaise carried over into the playoffs, at least at first. San Jose lost 2-0 in Los Angeles and fell behind 2-0 at home before surging back to score five straight goals and win, 5-2, in overtime and 5-4 on aggregate. The Quakes rallied again to beat Kansas City, 3-2, again in overtime, and completed the fairy tale by blasting Chicago, 4-2, in MLS Cup.
2004: D.C. UNITED (2nd Eastern Conference). A rather mediocre (11-10-9) regular season belied a 5-2 finish that included two wins over the MetroStars, which were promptly followed by a pair of 2-0 victories over the same team in the playoffs.
An unforgettable conference final against the Revs, which ended 3-3 after regulation and overtime, went to D.C. in a 4-3 penalty-kick tiebreaker. United won its fourth title by beating Kansas City, 3-2.
2005: LOS ANGELES (4th Western Conference). One of the league's great myths is that a crappy Galaxy team lucked its way past San Jose, Colorado and New England to the title. More to the point is this team, as it chafed under former head coach Steve Sampson, played with nothing to lose.
True, LA (13-13-6) did finish the season at .500, but so had D.C. in 1996. In the final weeks of the season, it had beaten Kansas City and FC Dallas in league play, and while winning the U.S. Open Cup had defeated three MLS teams, including San Jose.
After stunning San Jose, 3-1, at Home Depot Center in the playoff opener, it scraped out a 1-1 tie at Spartan Stadium to advance. LA went to Colorado for the conference final and two moments of magic from Landon Donovan brought a 2-0 victory. When Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez scored in overtime to down New England, 1-0, with only the second goal of his brief MLS career, the team of destiny had prevailed.
2006. HOUSTON (2nd Western Conference). Houston lost all real chance of winning the Western Conference by losing three of five straight road games before playing solid if unspectacular soccer down the stretch: winning two, tying four and losing only one, a 1-0 defeat to eventual conference winner Dallas. More importantly, in all but one match - a 3-3 season-finale shootout with Colorado - Houston limited its opponents to one goal or less.
In the playoffs, it shut out Chivas USA, 2-0, in the second match to advance on aggregate, 3-2, beat Colorado, 3-1, in the conference final, and in MLS Cup edged New England on penalties after a 1-1 tie.